Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Political Fable Concerning America

August 8, 1848 is an important date in American history, although you won’t see much about it in history books. In the aftermath of war with Mexico, Congress was crafting and debating over legislation to address the management of the United States’ new territorial acquisitions. Congressman David Wilmot saw this as an opportunity. He wrote what is known today as the “Wilmot Proviso” to include in the pending legislation. If adopted, the proviso would have banned slavery in the new territories.

David Wilmot
David Wilmot was a good Whig. Like other members of this political party, he was an adamant foe of slavery. He believed, with Horace Greeley, that “‘Our country right or wrong’ is an evil motto--what if your country be in the wrong? It will only compound her injury. I wish to serve the republic with an honest and fearless criticism.” 

However, opposing slavery, in the 1840’s, was tantamount to political suicide. A block of Southern States controlled by oligarchic plantation owners was steadfast in opposing any new limitations on slavery. 

The Wilmot Proviso would figure in the 1848 presidential election. The majority of Whigs were inclined to support a popular war hero by the name of Zachary Taylor, on the basis that he was electable. Whigs like Henry Clay, David Wilmot, and Horace Greeley cared less about electability than they doing the right thing. Greeley did not mince words regarding slavery: “. . . while the Right of Suffrage is conceded to thousands notoriously ignorant, vicious and drunken. . . a Constitutional denial to Black men, as such, of Political Rights freely secured to White men, is monstrously unjust and irrational.” And he was equally outspoken in defending the extension of suffrage to women. 

Horace Greeley, idealist and neck-beard innovator
Taylor had been made a hero by the Mexican War, and the more principled Whigs had despised the War with Mexico. Taylor equivocated on the issue of slavery. But the more pragmatic Whigs understood that war heroes are always popular with voters.  

In a telling political cartoon, we see the 1848 election depicted as a cart drawn by two horses: one straining uphill toward the presidency, the other pulling downward toward irrelevance. Taylor was pulling toward the top while Horace Greeley, a moral compass for Whigs, was pulling in the other direction. And there is David Wilmot, lodging a stone under the wheel of the cart to block its assent.
Taylor: “Do slack up a little there, Horace, till we get over a check that someone has put before the wheel.”

Greeley: “It's of no use to talk to me, for Mr. Clay says he would rather be right than be President, and that is the policy I am adopting now.” 

What is most telling of all, however, is what is shown in the cart. There were three issues on which Zachary Taylor and Horace Greeley agreed: banks, tariffs, and internal improvements. 

The Tariff Question

As stated by Greeley, the Whigs’ tariff policy was thus: “impose higher rates of duty on those Foreign Products which come in competition in our markets with the products of our Home Industry, with lower duties  ... on [products] which do not ... compete with the products of our own labor.” In this, Greeley and the Whigs he represented rightly understood the meaning of Adam Smith. 

Many workers in the North faced competition from low-priced foreign goods. However, in the South, the oligarchs resisted the idea of paying higher prices for foreign goods. They also worried that higher tariffs on their foreign trading partners would leave them with less money to spend on Southern cotton. This was an unabashedly self-interested position on the part of the oligarchs.
But as for the common people living in the South, it was true that the prosperity of the North did not reach them, and a great many lived in poverty. Now, the common people might have recognized that the Southern oligarchs were the real source of their poverty, but their provincial worldview didn’t allow them to see it.   

At the end of the day, Southern leaders successfully pressed the argument that “what is good for the South is good for the North.” The Southern states produced cloth and raw materials that northern ships carried overseas. The self-interested position prevailed over the moral position. 

Internal Improvements

The Whigs were strong advocates for granting federal money for interstate roads, irrigation systems, railroads, and other projects that would facilitate trade between the states. To ease interstate trade was to aid both sellers of goods and buyers of goods. It was an investment in American prosperity. Why not raise tariffs on foreign imports and support the growth of American industry? But here too the Southern states resisted. The population of the Southern states was widely and sparsely settled; investment in public projects would never benefit the South as much – dollar for dollar – as it would the North. And even as they claimed, “what is good for the South is good for the North,” Southern leaders saw the North as a bitter rival.


Whigs advocated for a National Bank. To be very clear on this point, they sought to nationalize – to take out of private hands – the banking system. The alternative is what we see today: A Federal Reserve that is governed by private financiers. Our Federal Reserve allows people like Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase to sit among the board members, even though he is among the arch-criminals that drove millions of Americans into poverty or near-poverty. 

Now, some people take a very dim view of nationalizing industries, and prefer the idea of privatization. However, if the goal is to create institutions such as banks which serve the public interest, the question of public versus private ownership is secondary to the question of whether one trusts the government. If the government is corrupt, it will place money into the hands of corrupt private interests (crony capitalism). If the government is corrupt, it will stuff public agencies with do-nothing overpaid friends of politicians. Either way, the public interest suffers. So really, if we are apply these Whig lessons to current times, the matter of corruption must come first.


But rather than dwell on what might have been, I will keep this short, and observe that the self-interest of oligarchs continues to prevail over the public interest. We no longer abide the institution of slavery, but we abide unprecedented levels of unemployment, well-trained professionals working as janitors, and the daily abuse of Mexican and Chinese workers. Our infrastructure crumbles around us. Our once-great cities go bankrupt, and our leaders remain indifferent to our cries for relief.  By allowing themselves to be seduced by the self-interested arguments of Southern slave-mongers, Americans of the 1840s made a Faustian Bargain, and the moral stain has never been entirely obliterated.

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